How To Start a Commonplace Book

Why You Need a Commonplace Book

If journaling is a collection of your thoughts and reflections what do you call that other book where you scribble down other people’s thoughts and reflections? 

Turns out “that other book” actually has a name and a lengthy history. It is called a Commonplace Book and the idea has been around for many, many centuries, and has been used by many authors and thinkers through the ages. A non-exhaustive list of famous folks who have used Commonplace Books includes:

  • H.P Lovecraft
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Nancy Cunard
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson 
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton 
  • Carl Linnaeus 
  • John Locke 
  • John Milton 
  • Georgina McCrae 
  • Seneca
  • Marcus Aurelius 
  • Sei Shonagon 
  • Leanardo da Vinci 
  • Isaac Newton 

What is a Commonplace Book? 

You might be asking yourself, okay – so what exactly is a Commonplace Book? 

Glad you asked! 

A Commonplace Book is a collection of notes, quotes, insights, and other bits of information that you want to save for future reference. It is essentially the opposite of a traditional journal – instead of holding your thoughts, it holds important outside thoughts that you want to remember. In description Commonplace Books John Locke writes: “Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.”

You may already be intuitively doing something similar to this on a regular basis, by taking notes when something captures your attention. A Commonplace Book is especially valuable because it helps you to do this in an organized fashion and keeps the information in a way that is easily available for future reference. You might read something one day that really resonates with you. Without a Commonplace Book, in a couple of months, you may completely forget what you had read. With a Commonplace Book, you have a record that you can look back on to remember everything you’ve read. This can be especially helpful for making connections between previously unrelated topics. 

How to Create a Commonplace Book 

First of all, there are no rules on how to create the perfect Commonplace Book (this is your friendly remember to embrace imperfection in your writing). That being said, there are two key ways most folks keep a Commonplace Book: 

  • 1. The first method is to use a notebook. With this method, you copy notes by hand whenever you want to add something to your book. To keep yourself organized, it can be helpful to add some kind of index at the beginning of the book and categorization throughout. For example, you can leave the first couple of pages dedicated to your “index” and star by listing types of information you expect to include. So this could be categories like poems, song lyrics, historical information, quotes from fiction – anything that you think you might want to include in your Commonplace Book. Then when you add an entry related to that topic, you will list the page number of the entry on the index page.  Here’s an example of how this could work. 

This index helps you to group entries together and to quickly find and reference relevant information. You can also add category names at the start of each entry. This can be good to do at the top of the page, so you can quickly find the entry in the future. Here’s an example of how this might look: 

  • 2. Alternatively, you can abandon a physical book altogether and use an index card system instead. In this case, you can create folders with the same types of categories you would use for your index. Then each time you want to add an entry to that category, you will write it on an index and add it in the folder instead. 
This is a poem from “Inquire Within” by In-Q. I love it!

It is also possible to do all of this electronically. In my experience, when using solely digital files, I am less likely to reference them in the future, unless I am specifically looking for something. The beauty of the physical Commonplace Book is that it keeps information front and center so you can easily stumble upon the information. 

How to Collect Information for your Commonplace Book 

So you’ve decided what kind of Commonplace Book you want to use, now how do you go about filling it up? 

I think you’ll quickly find that this is the easy part! 

Essentially, you want to pay attention to what you are reading and consuming and make note of anything that resonates with you or catches your attention. A couple of specific tips here: 

  • If you are reading a book, it can help to simply underline or earmark the page as you read. Rather than write everything down as you go and interrupt your flow, you can always then go back and find the information later. 
  • If you are reading something online or on the go, it can be useful to take a screenshot or a picture and email it to yourself. Give your email an easy-to-find title like “Commonplace Book”. Then, later on, you can quickly find the information and add it to your Commonplace Book. 

What are the Benefits? 

There’s a reason why these have been around so long! Here are some of the key benefits of keeping a Commonplace Book: 

  1. Easy access to information 
  2. It helps with reading comprehension and recall 
  3. A Commonplace Book helps you to draw connections between unrelated items 
  4. It helps improve your thinking by drawing your attention to meaningful information 
  5. Commonplace Books give you more confidence in what you are learning
  6. It can give deep comfort when you are struggling by reminding you of things that interest and light you up 
  7. Commonplace Books can feel like less pressure than a journal. If you are having a hard time writing your own thoughts, you can also write down words of others that inspire you. 
  8. Bonus! Commonplace Books are very affordable 🙂

And there you have it! A brief overview of the history of Commonplace Books and all you need to know to get started with your own today. Let me know in the comments below if you’ve tried one. And if not – what do you want to add to your Commonplace Book? 

PS: A variation on this is a Heartsong Journal. This type of journal is more focused specifically on things related to you personally, but you could explore combining the two types.



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